It is hard to think of an age when the philosophy of Soren Kierkegaard would be more unpopular than our own, the exception being perhaps his own time, or the Augustan at its height. I cannot think of a single reason why Kierkegaard would be popular in any age, apart from say an apocalyptic age of the spirit. His philosophy is not most people’s cup of tea. Kierkegaard lists the state of despair as mankind’s essential condition. The basic assumptions of modern civilization are nullified by Kierkegaard’s “sickness unto death.” The root of the problem for him is the will: “sin has its root in willing.” And without the command of the will, civilization as we know it, marked as it is by the absolute belief in the value of material possessions and progress, would come to a grinding halt. Kierkegaard may be the most unwelcome philosophic pest since Socrates and he welcomes the comparison throughout The Sickness Unto Death. Socrates is a kind of authority for Kierkegaard, but Kierkegaard’s argument does not begin or end with Socrates. Kierkegaard reaches further back than Socrates and his scope is larger. Using Christian iconography, Kierkegaard would be Jesus and Socrates would be Moses; it would be inappropriate to tell the tale of one without at least alluding to the other.
The beginning of Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death is loaded with jargon that does anything but lift the cloud of ignorance, which is the Socratic definition of sin according to Kierkegaard: “Sin is ignorance.” However, it is not necessary to read between the lines because Kierkegaard’s most important ideas are as plain as day. He begins with the tenet that a “human being is a spirit.” This is also the basic assumption of Socrates, not to mention Plato and Jesus, as well. Upon further elaboration, Kierkegaard reaches the conclusion that man is not only a spirit but also a “synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal.” In short, Kierkegaard is a dualist. He believes in the that the spirit and the flesh are seperate entities, with a human consisting of both. This is the starting ground that leads us to Kierkegaard’s conception of despair as mankind’s inescapable lot in life.
He tells us in a myriad of ways what despair is and what it does. Despair is “man’s superiority over the animal…for it indicates infinite erectness or sublimity, that he is spirit.” Despair is what constitutes mankind and it is manifold. It is also the “qualification of spirit and relates to the eternal in man.” In this sense, despair is a state that should be desirable, but that does not mean that such a condition is pleasurable and Kierkegaard does nothing to sweeten the pot: “despair is not only the worst misfortune and misery—no, it is ruination.” Is the philosopher being dramatic or am I taking his words too literally? Kierkegaard’s calls this despair by another name further on: “sickness unto death.” It is a title that surely demands definition, but one that does not leave much to the imagination.
Kierkegaard’s “sickness unto death” is an intensification of his despair in a particular direction. He defines despair as a condition where a human desires to be rid of oneself, that is, one’s eternal self. This, however, is not a possibility for Kierkegaard by definition of the eternal. Mankind’s fortune then is frustration: “the torment of despair is precisely this inability to die.” The obvious critique of this argument is to ask why should a human desire to die? Why this emphasis on death and sickness? Kierkegaard does not see any way around this condition, it is an ultimatum delivered to mankind from the infinite: “No matter how much the despairing person avoids it, no matter how successfully he has completely lost himself…eternity nevertheless will make it manifest that his condition was despair and will nail him to himself so that his torment will still be that he cannot rid himself of his self…Eternity is obliged to do this, because to have a self, to be a self, is the greatest concession, an infinite concession, given to man, but it is also eternity’s claim upon him.”
Here is the crux of Kierkegaard’s argument: mankind is made for great things and anything that diverts our attention from this destiny is untruth. Everyone is afflicted by despair; it is a universal condition for mankind. Kierkegaard’s formula for the “sickness unto death” is equal to his conception of despair. It is the “will to be rid of oneself”, one’s identity and one’s claim to eternity, which for Kierkegaard are one and the same. There is another facet to despair, which is also equivocal to the desire to do away with oneself, and that is the drive to “to be oneself.” The anxiety of failing to meet such an expectation, “to arrive at or to be in equilibrium”, leads one also into a state of despair. The “sickness unto death” is a malaise of the spirit. This condition cannot be measured like a physical malady for obvious reasons, but for Kierkegaard it is real and does operate on us nonetheless, with or without our knowledge or strict consent.
Naturally, when we encounter a sickness we tend to immediately grope for a cure. After all, who wants to be sick? For Kierkegaard, the mistaken soul behaves as such. He says, “it is the worst misfortune never to have had that sickness” by which he means the “sickness unto death” or despair. It is plain to see why he feels the way he does. There are at least two facets to Kierkegaard’s examination of despair. The individual who is not aware of the spirit is inherently in despair because he or she is avoiding the reality of their existence, and being oblivious to one’s position before eternity is by no means an avoidance or an escape of one’s duty: “most men live without ever becoming conscious of being destined as spirit…which is simply despair.”
The second type of despair is to accept one’s destiny before the infinite and attempt to put oneself in proper alignment with the infinite. This is also despair because it is a crisis for an individual to realize that he or she is not acting according to their “the theological self, the self directly before God.” This type of despair differs from the first in that it is on the right track, but is similar to the former in that such a reality is barely apprehensible and cannot be called anything but despair. It is necessary to despair in order to see beyond oneself. Kierkegaard believes that the “sickness unto death” is essential to reveal that “a person is not—namely, that which is his goal and criterion.” Mankind is not all that it can or should be and despair is the symptom of this condition.
To have a conception of God and the infinite and then to deny one’s fate is disobedience. Kierkegaard does not recommend such an action, but it is in one’s own hands to decide what course to take, and it is here that we arrive at the very root of despair. Socrates says that ignorance is the cause of sin. For Kierkegaard, sin and despair are interchangeable terms: “sin is despair…for sin is not the turbulence of flesh and blood but is the spirit’s consent to it.” However, he locates the origin of sin elsewhere, not in ignorance like Socrates. Kierkegaard reaches further than Socrates in this capacity. In his own time, Socrates showed that most Athenians were actually oblivious of the spirit and lived in detriment to it. For him, ignorance propelled this type of behaviour. Kierkegaard acknowledges that ignorance does indeed play a part in causing sin, but it is the will that causes disobedience. Kierkegaard says that Socrates’ definition of sin is incomplete because it did not account for the will, that an individual, despite possessing an understanding about the spirit, could still willingly act to his or her own detriment. Kierkegaard places ignorance in the foreground. It is the will that causes sin and dissipates understanding: “sin has its roots in willing, not in knowing, and this corruption of willing affects the individual’s consciousness.”
The cure for despair is to stamp down the will or at least to properly direct it, and this is an endeavor that requires ceaseless practice: “In the life of the spirit there is no standing still…therefore, if a person does not do what is right at the very second he knows it—then, first of all, knowing simmers down.” For Kierkegaard, the will stems from one’s lower nature, the physical element of the self’s synthesis; therefore, it must be conditioned to meet one’s understanding and work in tandem with the spirit, otherwise despair will prevail over one’s efforts to attain proper alignment with the infinite: “when knowing has become duly obscured, knowing and willing can better understand each other; eventually they agree completely, for now knowing has come over to the side of willing and admits that what it wants is absolutely right.” When an individual realizes his or her infinite potential then the “sickness unto death” will properly understood as a blessing and not as a disease. A cure is not required because despair is what makes an individual aware of his or her “infinite self” and this surely is not a malaise. Like Socrates, Kierkegaard knows how to be ironic. And the only thing more ironic than Kierkegaard is the infinite itself while in the presence of the finite.